Ahead of this weekend’s UEFA Champions League Final, Kitbag.com takes a look at exactly how Real Madrid and Juventus made it to Cardiff and what links these two European football heavyweights with Wales itself, as the nation prepares to host its first ever UCL showpiece.
Despite progressing throughout this season’s tournament unbeaten, Real Madrid would only escape the first round as runners-up, following a pair of 2-2 tussles with eventual Group F winners Dortmund. In what would be the group’s key result, Real found themselves held to a thrilling 3-3 draw at Legia Warsaw, with a late Mateo Kovačić equaliser needed to spare the holders the blushes of defeat. Undeterred, the knockouts saw a vibrant los Blancos come into their own, racking up successive 3-1 wins over Napoli and a hard-fought quarter-final victory at Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena. Real’s UCL status would then swing in the balance in the second leg, as Robert Lewandowski’s penalty and a Sergio Ramos own goal helped the German champions back into contention. However, the irrepressible Cristiano Ronaldo soon emerged in trademark fashion to resoundingly save the day. Victory on Saturday evening would see the Spanish side become the first to retain the trophy in the modern Champions League era; and after relinquishing their La Liga crown to Barcelona, anything less than victory will be quite the disappointment for a Real fanbase that has come to know success as the norm.
For Juventus, dominance of Serie A and the Copa Italia, for the sixth and third successive season respectively, has been coupled with a robust run to the UCL Final. Cruising to the top of Group H, by way of impressive wins on the road at Dinamo Zagreb, Lyon and Sevilla, Juve would then capitalise on Alex Telles’ early dismissal to put paid to Porto’s chances in the second round. At the quarter-finals, a meeting with Barcelona might have intimated many, especially in light of the Catalans’ unthinkable comeback against PSG the previous month. Nonetheless, a powerful and professional two-legged performance saw the Spanish champions shown the door, while the mercurial Monaco demonstrated disappointingly little of their previous attacking prowess in the semi-finals. With the Argentine duo of Pablo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain encroaching on double figures for their European campaign, can Juve’s solid foundations provide the platform from which to snatch the most important goal of all?
Saturday’s clash will signify the second time these clubs have contested the UCL showpiece, having previously tangled at Ajax’s Amsterdam ArenA in 1998. On that night, it was Serbian international Predrag Mijatović who would deliver the killer blow, helping his Real Madrid team to a narrow 1-0 win and securing Real’s first European Cup in 32 years. Coincidentally, the Amsterdam ArenA itself would provide much of the design inspiration for Cardiff’s new Millennium Stadium, which would open its gates for its first events the following spring. Across their celebrated histories, Real and Juve have met a total of 18 times; eight in Madrid, eight in Turin and two on neutral ground, with honours even at eight wins apiece. Notably, since the turn of the 21st century, these sides have been paired together three times in the latter stages of the UCL, with Juventus prevailing on aggregate in all three ties. Does a one-off encounter conversely favour Madrid? Their victories in the 2014 and 2016 UCL and Super Cup finals lend credence to this theory, with Juve beaten by Barcelona in the interim year.
As well as serving as the home of the Welsh international team for qualifying campaigns and marquee friendlies, Wales’ national stadium (which will host the Champions League showpiece) has already played host to six FA Cup Finals, seven League Cup Finals and 18 Football League play-offs, as well as a further six Community Shield fixtures. Built on the banks of the capital city’s River Taff, one of the Cardiff venue’s most distinctive and innovative attractions lies in its fully-retractable roof; a feature that enabled it to stage the first ever indoor FA Cup Final in 2002. After much discussion in the run-up to the match, it has recently been confirmed that Juventus and Real will enjoy the same atmospheric indoor arena set-up; an unprecedented step for a Champions League Final, with some 72,000 spectators poised to make themselves heard. With a full set of accompanying events across the coming week, Cardiff will additionally play host to the women’s UCL Final this week, with French holders Lyon to be challenged by countrywomen Paris Saint-Germain at Cardiff City.
Saturday’s showdown sees Real Madrid travel to Cardiff for the second time in recent seasons, having already lifted the UEFA Super Cup at the nearby Cardiff City Stadium, a mere three years ago. With a brace from Cristiano Ronaldo steering the UCL champions to victory over Sevilla, St. Mary’s Street would be a hive of Real celebration that night. However, long-time supporters might remember the Welsh capital as a scene of Madridian misery, as los Blancos lost a 1971 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final match to Welsh Cup holders Cardiff City. Juventus conversely have never kicked a ball in Cardiff, yet their links to Wales itself run deep, with legendary Welsh forward John Charles adored as one of the Turin club’s greatest players; his goalscoring prowess and towering frame matched by a demeanour that earned him the nickname ‘il Gigante Buono’ (‘the Gentle Giant). Charles’ move to Turin was later mirrored by his compatriot Ian Rush and it is fitting that Italian football’s Bianconeri will be part of Saturday’s match, given Rush’s status as official UCL tournament final ambassador.
Finally, Saturday’s final sees a welcome return for hometown hero Gareth Bale. Growing up in and around the city, Bale would cut his footballing teeth with former Welsh League club Cardiff Civil Service, before making his career-launching switch to Southampton. Winning his first senior Wales cap in the summer of 2006, Bale’s feats for the national team especially would rapidly win the hearts of his fellow Welshmen. In the pressure cauldron of Madrid however, the road has been somewhat rockier; and yet Bale has already helped himself to six major honours in the Bernabeu club’s classic white, including his maiden UCL championship a year ago. Grounded by injury in recent months, Bale has shown positive signs of a return to top fitness, yet was left out of the La Liga-clinching victory at Malaga in May. As such, it remains to be seen if Zinedine Zidane will give this son of Cardiff the chance to shine on his hometown stage. Will the patron’s of Bale’s ‘Elevens’ bar, a mere stone’s throw from the stadium, be celebrating with a pint of Bale Ale, or drowning their sorrows this Saturday? AC
- Ronaldo, Supporters and Stadium w/Trophy by Action Images
- Gareth Bale by Carl Recine, Reuters/Action Images